What is the best recipe for mashed potatoes?
In my family, mashed potatoes were one of the first things I learned to make. It was also one of the first things I taught my daughters to cook.
Mashed potatoes seem to appeal to almost everyone. But here’s the tricky thing.
Ask ten people how they like to prepare their mashed spuds, and you’ll likely get ten different answers. That’s because, as with all food, defining the “best” mashed potato is a very subjective thing.
Mashed potatoes are one of those side dishes that you probably had more times than you can count when you were growing up, both at home and at the school cafeteria.
And the way your mom made them – whether they were red potatoes smashed with their skins on or some mysterious reconstituted potato flakes – is quite probably the way that you like them today.
Or maybe you didn’t like your mom’s version of mashed potatoes and grew up thinking of them as bland, gummy, watery or just plain gloppy. And then, when you had mashed potatoes at your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s house or at a restaurant, you suddenly realized that mashed potatoes were fantastic. Sorry mom.
But what happens when a reconstituted potato loving person marries a red potatoes mashed with skins person and they look at each other for the first time and one says, “Hey, how about mashed potatoes for dinner tonight?”
“Oh! My favorite!” says the other. What happens next could get ugly.
Marriage Potato Bliss
My wife and I have fortunately have the exact same taste when it comes to mashed potatoes. She makes them completely different from my mom who used a mixer to whip tons of air into hers.
My wife prepares them with an old fashion tomato masher that she either found at a garage sale or grabbed from her mom’s kitchen on the way to college.
Over the years I have watched many friends make their mashed potatoes and it’s amazing how many different ways there are to smash these tubers. Below we will look at how choosing the best potato, how to cook them, how to mash them and then how to season and add additional flavor.
But first, here is my basic recipe for mashed potatoes.
Now Let's Consider A Few Options When Mashing Potatoes
Choosing the Right Potato to Mash
This post looks at many of the options associated with preparing great mashed potatoes. After checking out some of these tips, you can find my basic mashed potato recipe here.
A potato is basically a package that contains starch, sugar and water along with some nutrients, especially in the skins. But, there are many different varieties of potato, and they differ in the proportions of each component.
Most cookbooks tell you to use high starch potatoes for mashing, like the russet or the slightly less but still starchy Yukon Gold. Starches swell at about 150°F, so the more starch your potato contains, the fluffier your mashed potatoes will be.
That makes sense to me, but just when I start to think I have a good handle on the right potato to mash, I hear otherwise.
My friend, who happens to be a chef, likes to mash waxy (lower-starch) potatoes like the thin skinned red or round white varieties. He says that waxy potatoes absorb less water, hold up better while cooking and have more potato flavor than high starch potatoes.
Well, I just had to test out his theory, and so I mashed two pounds each of both starchy and waxy potatoes. I cooked and then mashed them exactly the same way with the same ingredients.
I found that it was a bit harder to mash the waxy potatoes, but with a little extra elbow grease, I managed to get them just as smooth as the starchy potatoes.
As it turned out, I liked the flavor of the waxy potatoes better, but my wife thought they tasted waxy and preferred our usual russets. If the first word that comes to your mind to describe mashed potatoes is "starchy," then you might want to switch to mashing waxy potatoes.
And this makes sense. A potato that contains less starch is less apt to taste starchy than a potato that contains more starch.
What about mashed potatoes color?
I really love to mash Yukon Gold potatoes because of their rich, buttery color and flavor, but these contain a relatively high amount of starch, especially when compared to waxy potatoes.
My chef friend, Chef Ricco, said that to reduce the starch content in starchy potatoes before mashing, peel and quarter them the night before, and let them soak in cold water overnight.
After the long soak, the water will be very cloudy because of the excess starch. Just pour that water away, add fresh water, cook, drain and then mash.
But coming back to personal taste and those ten people we asked about perfect mashed potatoes, some people (like my wife) like starchy mashed potatoes. Not gummy, of course, but nice and fluffy and starchy. In that case, skip the soak.
In the end, you will probably need to experiment with a few different varieties of potatoes to come up with your favorite for mashing. You might even find that you like to mash a mixture of high and low-starch potatoes to find your ideal.
To Peel or Not to Peel
I have witnessed heated debates over this issue. Some people call potatoes mashed with the peels still on "smashed" potatoes. The smashed camp will usually say something about the texture variation being appealing.
That there are more nutrients in the skin and that it's best to leave the skins on. That they just look better on the plate.
People on the "mashed" side talk about how the smooth, regular texture is one of the major appeals of mashed potatoes. That lumpy mashed potatoes are nothing more than under-mashed potatoes and that "smashed potatoes" is just a dish made up at restaurants who didn't want to take the time to thoroughly mash the potatoes.
I can see both sides of the issue, but I refuse to take sides. Each has their place. To me, it depends on personal taste and also, what else I'm serving. Smashed potatoes are a little more rustic, and smooth mashed potatoes are a bit more refined.
So, I'd probably serve mashed potatoes with a really nice beef tenderloin whereas I might smash some potatoes to go with a piece of grilled sirloin.
When I was growing up, my dad used to grow potatoes in our back yard, and I really came to appreciate freshly harvested home-grown new potatoes mashed with their skins on. In my book, there's really nothing better. But that doesn't mean that I always leave the skins on.
Again, it depends on the circumstance and on what potatoes are available. Believe me, though, if I ever plant potatoes in the back yard with my girls, we are definitely mashing them with the skins on!
If you do choose to leave the skins on, use new potatoes or thin-skinned red potatoes - I tried mashing russets with the skins on and the end result wasn't too pleasant.
The thick skins were too much of a contrast to the creamy potatoes. And, whether or not you choose to leave the skins on, always wash your potatoes well and cut out any eyes.
Cooking them with the skins in the pot, but not on the potato
I recently read about this interesting technique: peel the potatoes and then gather them up and tie them into a cheesecloth bag. Leave the bag in the pot to boil with the potatoes and then toss it out before mashing. I am not sure why they did it that way.
Maybe it was just the writer's family tradition, but it seems to me that maybe some of the flavor and nutrients in the skins leach into the water and then are drawn into the potatoes during the cooking process. Maybe this technique offers the best of both worlds.
Creamy, smooth mashed potatoes with extra potato flavor and nutrition from the skins--sounds like the best of both worlds to me!
How to Boil a Potato for Mashing
I've always started my potatoes in cold water. My mother did it that way. I do it that way, and I've taught my girls to do it that way. But I never stopped to wonder if there was a good reason to start potatoes in cold water until someone asked me that in an email.
Keep in mind, I'm not a professional chef. I'm just a guy who wanted to be able to make a good meal. When people email me with questions like that, I generally don't already have the answer in my head. I'm not a chef, so the first thing I do is go find a chef and ask him or her.
So, when that email came into my inbox, my first thought was, "well, who wants to cook in water that has been sitting around in a hot water tank?" I didn't think it was the best, or even correct, answer, though, so I asked a chef friend, David Nelson.
By his tone of voice, he obviously thought I was crazy and said that he didn't think it would matter but that he'd do some further research.
He found out from The Meat and Potatoes Cookbook to use cold water, but they didn't offer a reason. Now he was intrigued and posted the question on a chef cooking forum.
Now, here's where things start to get a little scientific, so I'm just going to give you the gist of it to spare you the headache that I got.
Starting the potatoes in cold water allows for more even cooking as the temperature of the potatoes rises slowly.
Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, says that starch granules gelatinize, or swell up, between 137°F and 150°F. If you just throw the potatoes in already boiling water, the outside starch granules will gelatinize on contact with the water, effectively blocking the water from penetrating farther into the potato.
So, it seems as if there are at least two very good reasons why you should start your potatoes (or any starchy vegetable) in cold water. Now, this doesn't mean that you can't bring your potatoes up to a gentle boil, it just means that you should start them cold so they can gradually come up to temperature and cook (gelatinize, in this instance) evenly.
What Tool to Use to Mash Potatoes
Like the answer to most questions about cooking, the right tool for the job depends on your personal taste. If you like very light and fluffy mashed potatoes with no lumps, there's a tool for that. If you like mashed potatoes with some texture, well, there's a tool for that, too.
I have four different tools in my kitchen that I can use for mashing potatoes. I also have a couple of tools that some people might want to use but shouldn't.
First, the list of approved tools for the job:
- a wire masher whose mashing surface looks kind of like the electrical coil in your oven - this is the one I use most often.
- a stainless steel masher whose mashing surface looks kind of like a miniature manhole cover--solid stainless steel with holes for mashing punched out.
- a ricer, which looks like an over-sized garlic press and
- an electric mixer, either hand or stand
I bet almost everyone in America has a wire potato masher in their gadget drawer. The only exception might be low-carb households, but even then, you might want to mash some cauliflower!
The wire masher is generally my go-to tool for mashing potatoes. It's very versatile: mash a little to have potatoes with some lumps and chunks in them--it's ideal for making smashed potatoes--mash a lot and get perfectly smooth mashed potatoes.
Since the masher has a relatively small mashing surface (after all, it's just a thick wire), a wire masher will leave your potatoes relatively light in texture since it doesn't crush too many delicate starch granules.
Stainless Steel Masher
A stainless steel masher comes with either a long or a U-shaped handle that supports the mashing disc on the end. The disc has lots of little holes (maybe ¼" to ⅓") in it. Mash the masher down through the potatoes, and the potatoes sort of squish through the little holes.
This can require some elbow grease. I think it's a little too much work for a side dish, but lots of my friends swear by theirs.
You can make either smashed or mashed potatoes with this type of masher, as well, but the potatoes will be a little heavier since the increased surface area of the masher tends to crush more of the starch granules than does the wire masher.
Forcing cooked potatoes through a ricer is akin to pressing garlic. Place the cooked potatoes in a cylindrical enclosure fitted with a metal die positively riddled with holes at one end, push the plunger and force the potatoes through the little holes.
The resulting potatoes will be completely smooth and light in texture, making it very easy to incorporate butter and/or milk or any other liquids.
Although silky smooth, riced potatoes can be a little dense. No air gets incorporated as with the other two mashers mentioned above.
With those types of mashers, the repeated up and down mashing action incorporated a bit of air, lightening the potatoes.
With a ricer, it's once through and done, so almost no air is incorporated. I like them that way (along with a bunch of other ways!) but my wife thinks they're too heavy. See why I learned to cook?
I recently received an email from a home cook who says that he uses a ricer with skin-on small new potatoes. One press, and the potato is forced through the die leaving the skins behind in the ricer. I'm definitely going to have to give that one a try!
An Extra Step - If you like extra air incorporated into your mashed potatoes, after mashing with either a wire masher, stainless steel masher or ricer, beat them for just a minute with a whisk. This will lighten the potatoes a bit.
In fact, if your significant other likes lighter mashed potatoes and you like them denser, just whisk their portion, and everyone is happy.
Mashed potatoes made with a hand mixer are the mashed potatoes of my childhood. This is the way my mom used to make them. I can still see her standing there, holding the mixer in one hand and periodically adding some butter and milk.
This style of mashed potato is more accurately called whipped potatoes since a lot of air in incorporated while beating. A chef friend told me that this is the way that restaurants often mash their potatoes. It's quick, and it increases the volume of the potatoes, making it economical.
What looks like a lot of mashed potatoes is actually partly air bubbles. He also said that whipped potatoes hold up well in a steam table and are great for piping out of a pastry bag.
Again, some people find whipped potatoes to be their favorite kind--light and almost fluffy. Others will find them over-processed. Again, it's all a matter of taste. Make them the way you like them!
The Food Processor--Not Approved for Mashed Potatoes
The food processor is the enemy of starchy vegetables everywhere. While you'll want to use it to make tapenade, pesto or hummus, do not use it to mash your potatoes.
While it seems like a good idea to make short work of the job, the extremely high speed at which the blade spins literally smashes the starch granules, and what you end up with is a gluey, starchy, nasty mess.
Choose Your Style
Now you have some options for mashing potatoes. If you want lighter mashed potatoes, whisk them or use a mixer. If you like dense, smooth mashed potatoes, use the ricer. It's really all about the tool you choose to use.
Just like a painter will get a different result with each brush he chooses to use, you'll end up with a different version of the same dish depending on what mashing tool you choose.
Best Mashed Potatoes Recipe
- 2 pounds potatoes either starchy - waxy or a mix of both
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup half and half
- freshly ground black or white pepper - to taste
- Cook the potatoes until fork tender.
- Mash with salt, butter and half and half.
- Season with freshly ground pepper
- Now that we have a working list of ingredients and a method, there are plenty of other decisions to make.